Since her popular debut, Guppies for Tea, Swedish-born Marika Cobbold has established a reputation for astute and acerbic romances. Her previous novel, Aphrodite's Workshop for Reluctant Lovers, saw the goodness of love intervening in human affairs via the auspices of a relationship therapist. The heroine of her seventh novel, Eliza Cummings, could do with some one-to-one sessions herself.
Eliza has never got over the terrible guilt she feels about the death of her best-friend, Rose, who drowned during a school party. Now a ceramics restorer at the V&A she spends her days fixing shattered pots, while back at home she's mourning the end of a broken marriage. But when Rose's elderly father, a man who hasn't spoken to her for 25 years, calls and invites her to Sweden, she knows it's time to face up to the events that led to her friend's death.
When she reaches Ian's snowy Gothenburg home - a fairy-tale house of "honey-wood" floors and blazing stoves - it's soon clear that the old man hasn't long to live. He intimates to Eliza that he has been visited by his daughter, or at least by an otherworldly presence, and is keen to make amends. Sustained by plates of Nordic pastries and strong coffee, Eliza and her fading host take their first steps to confront the long ago tragedy.
Switching between past and present, Cobbold takes us back to Rose and Eliza's schooldays at the Lakeland Academy for Girls. It was here that the two friends first encountered Cassandra - a heavy-set scholarship girl with good reason to resent her peers' coltish charms. Excluded from the "princesses" and their charmed inner circle, Cassandra starts to plot the kind of revenge that could only be cooked up in the head of a hormonally-compromised teen.
Central to the girls' fantasy life is the folkloric figure of Nacken, a beautiful, naked boy with a "tumble of dark hair" said to inhabit Sweden's lakes and rivers. As Eliza recounts her story, and the full details of Cassandra's involvement in Rose's ill-advised midnight swim emerge, we see how Eliza's adult self might begin to find a way out of the woods.
A novel about the long-term effects of guilt and remorse, Cobbold's offbeat psychodrama deals in the language of redemption. Drawn to the darker corners of the female psyche, Cobbold shows how, even without the help of divine intervention, the "highly breakable" can eventually be rendered "useful and beautiful" once more.